It’s a designation that Barcelona and Miami hold with pride; it’s something that New Orleans and Tokyo wish they had. Having beach access elevates your city several rungs on the best-place-ever index.
Savannah, Georgia, is one of my favorite cities in the world. And it just so happens to have a beach: Tybee Island. I’ve known about it for a long time — even suggesting a visit in my three-day Savannah itinerary — but I’ve never actually been.
This month, Visit Tybee Island invited me to Tybee to experience it as a standalone destination. A little visit to Savannah would be worked in, of course, but the main goal would be to experience Tybee on its own, not as a side trip.
I went and discovered a throwback island, a quirky island, an island filled with beautiful nature and colorful houses and very friendly people and the best sunrises I’ve seen in years. This is Tybee.
Enjoying Beach Time…in October!
When I stepped off the plane, I was met by a wave of heat. For all my days in Tybee, the temperature was in the mid-eighties with high humidity — a big change from New York, where a recent cold spell had my friends doing emergency harvests to save their tomatoes.
It felt incredible to step back into summer. When out at night, I didn’t even need a cardigan. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at the beach — look at all that space!
Also, I was delighted to see what I thought was a baby seagull for the first time in my life, only to be informed by my readers that it is, in fact, a sandpiper.
Enormous Crab Claws Dipped in Butter
As much as I love seafood, I’ve never been a big fan of crab. Perhaps it’s my New England roots. But as soon as I arrived on Tybee, my friends from Visit Tybee and Visit Savannah announced they were taking me to lunch at the Crab Shack!
The Crab Shack is one of the big, casual (and yes, very touristy) restaurants of Tybee, most of it set in a deck overlooking the marsh. We decided to order the sampler plate for three: giant crab legs for each of us, plus shrimp, corn, mussels, sausage and crawfish that you twist in half before peeling apart and eating.
And it was SO good, and no, we didn’t even come close to finishing everything, but the showstopper was the crab claws. I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR THIS CRAB. However I’ve been eating crab my whole life, it’s been wrong. There’s nothing better than cracking those open and dipping them into melted butter.
Exploring Tybee Island by Bike
The first thing I noticed about Tybee was that it was almost chain-free. There’s a single Subway…and that’s it. No McDonald’s. No Starbucks. And it sounds like such a small thing, but that is an increasingly rare find in the States (not to mention something people are willing to pay money to enjoy).
But who needs chains when you’ve got places like Huc-a-Poos, a kitsch-stuffed dive bar and pizza restaurant featuring all kinds of crazy slices, each of them roughly the size of your head, as satisfying as a meal, and costing only $4?
Or Tybean Art and Coffee Bar, where you can get everything you’d find at Starbucks plus Southern praline lattes, with the addition of art by local artists on the walls…
Or Seaside Sisters, a fun store that goes above and beyond the standard gift shop with lots of cool, artsy items. I may have bought a tea towel with Jesus holding up two cups of coffee that reads, “CAFFEINE SAVES.”
The chain-free atmosphere makes Tybee feel like it’s from a bygone era — a time when people knew the local business owners more intimately.
Tybee has an unpretentious feel to it. This is a down-home Southern destination with quirks in all the right places.
Tybee has a relaxed and unpretentious feel to it. The homes are beautiful, yes, and people take good care of them, but it’s also not out of place to put a surfing Ken doll on your mailbox.
As I explored the island, places kept reminding me of different parts of the United States.
This? Southern California.
These little named houses reminded me of the cottages of Seaside, Florida.
A restaurant like this could be equally home in Maine or New Hampshire.
Any beach town in America, right here.
Tybee is home to a lighthouse and museum, and if you want to get a view of the island, head to the top of it!
I love how this picture feels like a miniature.
When you buy a ticket to the lighthouse, you also get admission to the museum, which is a monument to how the lighthouse keepers once lived. Worth a visit to check out the banisters shaped like lighthouses and the old-timey radio!
“AJ’s is the spot for sunset,” everyone told me when I started planning my trip. Tybee’s beach is along the eastern shore of the island, so the west is a mix of much smaller beaches, marshland, and grassy hills that grow right into the sea. There are lots of homes on the west side but few commercial businesses. AJ’s is one of them — a casual restaurant perched above the shoreline, giving you gorgeous views.
I sat down with a bowl of crab stew and a plate of fried flounder, watching the sky change before me.
Not a bad first day on the island.
Kayaking Tybee Island
Sea kayaking is a popular activity off the shores of Tybee Island. I signed up for a half-day excursion with Sea Kayak Georgia, one of the local providers. They also do SUP and canoe trips, and more intense kayaking trips for experienced sea kayakers.
I’ve never done actual sea kayaking before, but this was a very easy way to start — for the most part, the water was very still, and it was only once we paddled out into the ocean that we had to deal with slight waves. Eventually we let the current take us back to shore — fear not the inadvertent roll!
Little Tybee Island is an uninhabited island just southwest of Tybee, only reachable by boat. That didn’t stop us from running into a local gentleman and his very friendly dog! He had come out on his little boat and sat fishing, soaking up the sun, his long white hair flowing in the breeze.
“Hello!” we called out as we slipped by. “Welcome to another beautiful day in paradise,” he replied.
We would kayak into little inlets, carefully maneuvering around oyster beds and getting lost among the grasses. “If I got left behind, nobody would ever find me,” I remember thinking to myself.
And, predictably, this is where I got messed up — I ended up kayaking straight through grasses taller than my height and got stuck! It took a lot of digging with the oars to release myself from the clench of the grasses.
Kayaking was one of my favorite activities on Tybee. I loved getting to see the natural beauty of the island up close, and it was a perfect complimentary workout to all the biking I was doing. If you get the chance, you should make kayaking on Tybee a priority!
Just the Right Level of Pirate-y
Tybee has a pirate festival every October and I had just barely missed it. Much of the island was still decked out in pirate flags and skeletons. At some point it makes you wonder, “Is this for Pirate Fest, Halloween, or just because people on Tybee are really into pirates?”
The next festival is October 4-7, 2018. Arrrrrrr you ready?
Seeing Dolphins in the Wild
The waters off the north Georgia coast are filled with dolphins. You can see their fins dipping in and out from shore, but you’ll have a much better view if you get out on the water.
There are a few cruise providers in town and I went with Captain Derek’s Dolphin Adventure for a 60-90 minute cruise.
There’s nothing like seeing your first dolphin in the wild. For me, it was in South Africa, and I nearly burst into tears. And it’s kind of hard to replicate that feeling after you’ve already had it.
But seeing dolphins is ALWAYS a great time. And while I’ve since seen dolphins in places like Belize and Australia, I haven’t seen as many dolphins concentrated in one place as I did in Tybee. They are everywhere. Surfing in and out, enjoying the wake of the boats before them, playing with their friends, grabbing air and diving down below. (And trust me — the real thing is much better than my photographs!)
They love to play. If you luck out, they might sidle up to the boat and do jumps out of the water. If you really luck out, you might see a baby with its mother!
Absolutely Gorgeous Sunrises
It’s pretty rare for me to see a sunrise. Gone are the days when I’m riding a camel across the desert or partying with Vikings until 8:00 AM; these days, I’m likeliest to see a sunrise in the back of a Lyft on the way to JFK, yearning to take a picture of the skyline but knowing it will come out terrible. But time was on my side in Tybee — after several days of early wakeups, I was rising earlier than usual and awoke to brilliant sunrises each morning. It helped that the beaches are on the east side of the island.
I think for this one, the pictures need to do the talking.
In mid-October, the sunrise was it’s most colorful around 7:15-7:30 AM. Not too shabby.